Feb 2, 2008 2:02pm
The Art of Noise Collecting: Where to Find Free Sounds for Audio Production
I collect sounds from all over the internet and I wanted to provide a reference guide to finding unique sounds to mangle, use in samplers or for source audio for video, podcasts, education, scientific analysis, etc. I have been collecting noise since I was a kid in the early 70's. Not all of my sounds have survived but my collection has grown and continues to grow to this day. Over the years I have recorded with analog and digital tape, cell phones, digital memo recorders, Commodore computers, answering machines and anything else that will record sounds.
I have recorded thousands of songs and sounds as a hobby myself but I started a new hobby called sampling in the late 80's and early 90's. I had a few low bit samplers from Casio and Yamaha and discovered an 8 bit sampler for the Amiga 500 and started recording intruments and other pitched or percussion sounds for music creation. These days I use an Alesis QS6.1 and some software to burn ram cards with my own less dynamic samples and a program called Mellosoftron for the intricate samples with variations in timbre that require more samples per instrument. Regardless of what I use, anyone can sample with a multitude of hardware and software but you need sounds if you cannot create or record your own. Commercial sample libraries are not cheap but if you know where to look, you can find almost anything you will ever need, keep reading...
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: By stating that these are "free sounds", I mean that these will not cost you anything more than your time, effort, storage and electric to run the pc. The samples you find or obtain may or may not be ok to use in compositions, read the disclaimers or licensing text on the various websites or just ask the author of the sounds, you'd be surprized at how many people will let you use their stuff, keep their email in case! Some files are in creative commons, some require specific attribution credits, etc. Get permission before using anyone else's sounds if you are not sure, enough said.
I am not going to post links to zipped folders of free samples with loop points set and ready to load into your instrument files or sampler ram. I will, however, show you how to find the specific thing you are looking for and where to start. Let's start right here on archive.org and see what we can find. If you are looking for historic speeches from presidents and creative commons music this is a good starting point. Any of the NASA, Prelinger, Open Source stuff, etc. have tons of usable sounds, some in the public domain or with limited copyrights, no worries about some rich person suing you. Some websites internal search engines are not the best, you can use your favorite web search (more on these in a bit) along with the thing you are searching for and the website you with to search with better results some times. When searching try to think outside the strict phonetics of what you are looking for, use terms someone might use to describe something you are looking for when searching. Sometimes trying to narrow your searches too much excludes usable found data. That leads you to the simple answer to the question of this writing, Where are the free sounds?
Google. That's the answer (but not 100%). If you can google well you can find just about anything you are looking for in just about any category. However, when you cannot find something by googling it, try yahoo or ask and you might find something that google missed. It's true, if I cannot find something, I switch search engines and start from scratch, it works! I will explain how and where to search more specifically but lets cover basic searching strategy first.
I will presume you are skilled enoughed to search the internet and have a reasonable understanding of what kind of files will work, but don't think you need to find exactly what you are looking for to get what you're looking for... I'll explain. The amount of success you can achieve in the art of noise collecting depends a lot on your ability to be resourcfull and find what you need from less obvious places. Here is what I did and I'll go forward based on the same premise that you are also looking for stuff that is not necessarily obvious and easily obtainable.
I have a decent synth and a few ram cards that pretty much covers the General MIDI set, 99% of orchestral sounds, piano's, electric piano's, basic synth's, etc. If you do not have a synth but have about any computer, you have a soundcard that has at least 128 instruments, drums and effects built in. You can take any freeware MIDI sequencer and your built in wavetable synth and you are generations ahead of the avid electronic musician in the 80's for no additional cost. Some stuff is not even close to sounding real but some drums and stuff are usable. If you do not have basic orchestral sounds, there is an American college and a British Philharmonic orchestra that have every instrument for free in all ways, get googling. The fun is in the hunt... actually I don't have their websites saved anywhere, just every damn sound... no life.
Some of you have already discovered 128 new playable samples you didn't know about. Don't stop there, search your harddrive for .wav, .mp3, .aiff, .raw, .pcm, etc. you'd be surprized how many usable sounds are already on your computer from various programs. I would say there at least 10 system noises or internet service sounds, depending on how old your computer is. Make sure you source them and get permission to use them.
Now we are jumping around a bit, but who likes predictable boring text anyway? After searching your harddrive (even floppies!) and the archive itself, it's time to go deeper into the internet. But not so fast, you did check that discount CD rack for sound effect or world music CD's at the pharmacy right? Ok, good, back to the web. Let's take a quick look at the things I specifically look for that make great sounds or lead to them eventually, then we'll look at some more specific sources.
Historical Recordings- Aside from the sfuff here, there are all sorts of places on the web that have stuff mostly in the public domain for usable sampling! I look for presidential speeches, wartime newsreels, propaganda, space history and many other specific things, dependiing on what kind of project I have in mind. Sometimes I start a search with no project at all in mind. But for some great stuff go to NASA's site. You can find it right? They have tons of weird sounds from cassini space craft and tower countdowns and just about anything else you could want that is space related. Sound quality is poor in most cases but this is historical stuff so authenticiy is enforced by the age artifacts in the signal.
Things to search for:
Jim Jones / Jonestown
Another way is to be less specific, like [free] [moog] [sound]. This will pull up mp3's and apple format stuff. I will take any sound format but real audio to be honest, I can find a freeware program to translate between any two file types out there. This is where we get sidetracked for a second. Found a great zipped folder of Caribbean instrument samples for free but it's in akai format? Found some cool free gigasampler files with only a registration at a free site, but cannot open the file? Get some freeware or shareware software and convert the file to a usable format. You can even strip the samples out of files into multi samples with set loop points. Did you know that soundfonts can be translated into multisample sets for your specific need? More on soundfonts later...
Let's say you are looking for free multi samples or field recordings, let's start clicking those buttons on the netlabel page and see what's there... Freesound is a great project where you can find over a thousand of my sounds and thousands and thousands of other creator's recordings released under a creative commons sampling license, read the site for details. Some great multi samples are there, the search engine is not the best due to a lot of contributions from non english speaking countries so use your language skills creatively and find what you are looking for, if you join (free) you can download the sounds and even help describe them with tags. No need to ramble on about Freesound, if you ever searched for free sounds on the internet, you met them already. The best thing is that some of the audio quality is outstanding and there are many strange and unique sounds to explore, have fun.
Another place for usable loops and some samples is CCMixter, see the link on my netlabel and click around, use the basic search strategy here. They are linked to freesound as well. They don't take .wav files so I only look there once in a while, but like I stated about file formats, mp3 is not that bad for some things, like synth samples, computer or arcade noises, etc. Vocals are alright if recorded well and some instruments can get away with mp3 compression. When it comes to drums, unless you don't care or decide to do a crappy sounding drum track for some reason, mp3 and drum loops or hits is red flag I avoid unless no other source is available. The reason why is twofold...
First of all when compressing a file to mp3 you are removing frequencies in between the ones you are keeping. The sound is "unpacked" when played and the lost sounds inbetween are mathmatically estimated and well... it sounds like shit. The effect might sound cool for break or something and you might like crap sound, but most ears do not, I tried to use them before and have mostly horrid results form using mp3 drums or expressive instrument samples. Just check out some of my songs for examples.
Phase two of the mp3 deathmix curse is when you use mp3's in your DAW or sampler, you will most likely be using a higher format master file or wider bitrate hardware. You might get away with that decent quality mp3 so long as you remain in the higher fidelity format. I have mixed down masters into a 16bit wav file song and said, wow... that shitty mp3 sampled flure track sounds ok after all, crap I should get more mp3 files, they are everywhere... well here's the truth, if you are an audiophile, move along, these are not the samples you are looking for. When I made an mp3 of that wav file the mp3 sound in the mix took a helter skelter resonance crap on the song. Some drum tracks have audible PINGS in them where a cowbell or shaker was, some tracks sound like damaged cassette tape... use mp3 at your own risk.
Ok, back to searching for samples. I presented two ways of searching, specific and broad. Start specific, if you want the best multi sample poly korg sound, go to freesound and search it, done. No mysteries about how you can use it, no single shot here and single not there to try and normalize in an instrument, just a few usable notes off the synth, load, play and you're off. If you only want wav files, for highest quality (watch bitrates and frequency!) or specific things like soundfonts then use lots of keywords, chances are you will move more into commercial areas.
Broadening the search for sound... ok here you are. You looked on freesound, you looked at all the commercial sites, you looked on CCmixter and you cannot find that vectrex video game sound in wav format, now what? First let's think outside the box and click another link on my netlabel, youtube! Videos usually have a soundtrack and there are tons of moog and trs80 sounds that you may have never heard before, if only there was a way to record those sounds, damn... Another great place is synth museums, nostalgia sites and educational and historical sites with conspicuous links to audio samples. The word wav or mp3 might not come up, maybe a search for "click here for sound" and what you're looking for might surprixe you, switch up the phrasing, try again, keep clicking...
So we can broaden the search by searching specific sites where we suspect an audio example or sample might be hiding in place site. We are also broadening the search terms to "sound" instead of "sample" or "wav". "Hear" is a good one for those elusive aural artifacts. On the other end of the spectrum "multi sample" with or without space will hone you in on instrument files (and irrelevant scientific thesis papers be careful!). Do a broad search and a specific search, chances are you will find what you need or maybe never find it at all but find 20 other unique noises that I have used in a song.
So far we are looking in our homes for already recorded sound sources, on our hardrives for already digitized format sources and the internet for everything in between. We are looking for specific file formats and broad categories of our target source. There are millions of arcade and video game noises out there, you won't find some of the best ones if you start out looking with specific key words, bitrates, sample formats etc. That leads me to other sources for that sound.
There are two other tactics in finding that sound, the easiest way besides buying it, is asking for it. Found a killer website with snippets of their vintage synth in mp3? Email them, ask if they have it in wav. Offer some sounds you have collected (and can freely trade!) in exchange for them laying down some notes for you, whatever. I have gotten some stuff that way, and lots of dead email accounts as well. It's just one tool in the box, use it. You can post a request at the Freesound Project and usually someone will point you in the right direction or even try and make the sound for you as well!
Number 2 of additional tools are substitution. These, unfortunately for hyper readers, breaks down into two sub categories as well. I will break these down...
Substituting one sound for another, can't find the heavy metal reverse reverb gated german snare? You can find a similar one and process it somehow. I won't get into processing sound at this time as that is a whole additional rambling utterance. Pitching one thing up or down or adding some EQ or effects can create things from nothing. My sonar ping on freesound is a great example, google it. My point as a manipulator of sound is that synthetic noises and other sounds might fill your needs for a sound.
Need a whale sound? Slow down a dolphin sound.
Need a Dragon? Rent my cat... Search freesound for punchline...
Need someone punching a stop sign? Slow down and and or pitch shift a spatula hit or a spackle knife.
The point is, look for something similar to what you need if you cannot find the exact thing. Emulations of obsolete video games, recreations of unearthed neanderthal flutes, acutal recording of an entire gamelen orchestra with two different velocity strikes in cd quality wav (not really related but any search engine will find it and I had to mention it somewhere!). Recreations of your sound might be the only choice. Such is life, we tried everything right? No!
The second part of this second source is, see if someone already got the sound and made it available some other way! I started looking into VST instrument plugin's a couple years back when I was more of a sound snob. I only wanted 16 bit wav, at least 22k or nothing. I decided to find these virtual instruments and found a website called KVR Audio, look'em up! There are tons of free instrument files and plenty of free VST hosts to play the sounds as well as process and analyze. I initally did not want to use CPU exhausting sources of sound because of running multitrack audio and samplers and MIDI on a cheap computer and soundcard where performance is at a premium. I get as much as 36 tracks of 16 bit 44.1k with my old voyetra program without glitches or crashes (most of the time!). So running more software during recording and mixing is not an option for me. I had to have the sounds though!
I wanted to sample the instruments I found so I downloaded a bunch of free things that I had already sampled or was looking for, like old synthesizers and world instruments. Once I got using them I realized the loops points are set, some play soundfonts and wavs samples, some have the sounds I am looking for! They can export to wav without glitching? I found a way to add jawharp tracks to my projects without using loops and grinding my os to a screeching halt! I export to wav with wavosaur or minihost depending on my needs and load the track into my sequencer and bingo, no need to sample it. Yes I found the sound and did not sit for hours setting loop points and loading it onto a ram card or saving them in folders with pitch maps and all that lost time, and I never paid a dime!
So to summarize, the are many ways to find a sound. The secret is finding other ways to find things! As a going away present for reading all this, here is just an example of what I have found, what to stay away from and some additional pointers...
I have to mention that gamelan orchestra sample, it's easy to find and one of the coolest free things out there to sample. Some lofi samples of the Federation Bells. Restored audio from Kent State shootings, Jonestown massacre, FDR talking on the phone. A zipped file of 200 drum machine and oberheim synth samples (almost 700 megabytes, anyone can find the individual links for each sound and the torrent, but can you find the zipped folder without spyware? Stay safe.
That brings me to clearly illegal or copyright stuff. If you can navigate in arabic you can find every sample cd, software or vst plugin that is commercially available, with registration for free. It's pirated and you could be linking to site that big brother is watching so I don't advise it. I did find a bunch of stuff like ethnosphere plugins and reason and kontakt software, audio libraries but I wouldn't download files even if norton cleared them of viruses, too risky stick to the safe stuff.
Avoid realaudio, certain foreign websites or anything that doesn't look right. Update your virus software and if google says "this site is a known malware installer" or something when you find that tempting free multisample of that yamaha synth you loved as a kid, DON'T CLICK IT!
Lastly, sometimes your target sound is not out there in usable form. Maybe it's a crappy recording and you need high fidelity, maybe it's mixed in a passage of music at the library of congress website, maybe it's in the background of a BBC broadcast. Get it anyway! You might not have the time, resources or knowhow to get it out of the clip you found, but some day you might! I looked back at stuff I deemed unusable and found very usable source material. Even a few oscillations in a half second of sound might be enough to make a looped sample that might even sound good when played on a sampler keyboard. Maybe you'll end up with a sound based on your sound, you can use the editing abilities of your hardware or software to set decay and sustain levels or reverb that sucker into the sound after all! I learn trick every day and think, damn where on the web did I leave that sound???
There is yet another part of this (sorry) if you have the sound you can hear it and learn it's characteristic, you might say three years from now after you aqauint yourself with your new analog modeling synth, I can make that trautonium sound now and discard that cool free vst one (not likely). Or you might find a substitute to compare it too to make sure you are in posession of the best version of that sample that you can find. The key is to get it while you can. I have found some killer links to sounds that are dead ends now. I saved them as favorites and come back to expired domains and other things that prevent me from getting that almost perfect sound when I should have. Luckily, I get all I can ASAP. Some sites with thousands of free sounds are now pay sites. All the vintage synth's and beatbox sounds from Hollow Sun for instance used to be free of charge without restriction! So go right click your own links or setup your soundcard mixer and press record, and you may want to put on a pot of coffee because it can turn into a long night of collecting. Get clicking while they are there and don't forget to try again next month for that elusive sound you could not find, you never know when it will show up!
Started writing this on here a few hours ago, no spell checker, read at own risk!
This post was modified by NoiseCollector on 2008-02-02 22:02:27